As we continue to explore various aspects of the mission God has called us into, I want to raise the question about what our purpose is in doing so. What are we seeking to do as we reach out to change the world? We could mention big picture matters such as glorifying or obeying God, and those would be true. Or we could mention serving our King faithfully or making the most of the opportunities he gives us. Those, too, would be correct.
But here I’m thinking about the specific matter of when we talk to others about coming to Christ. What are we aiming for? What are we seeking to do? I want to make a distinction that I think is important. Specifically, Are we seeking a certain result or seeking to communicate a certain message? Are we focusing on bringing people to Christ or telling the good news?
The two are not necessarily opposed to each other. In fact, when approached properly, one will regularly lead to the other. Acts 14:21 talks about a time when “… they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples….” Preaching the good news leads to making disciples, at least in the initial sense of people coming to Christ (though much more teaching will be needed after they are baptized to make them into a disciple in the more complete sense, Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 6:40).
The question I’m raising here, though, is whether we should place our focus on others becoming disciples or on telling them the good news. Though these two are not necessarily opposed to each other, they can be. A focus on obtaining conversions can cause us to lapse unwittingly into using inappropriate means for obtaining them. Unfortunately, I can remember times when I found myself grasping at straws to try to get people to agree to be baptized. Perhaps I started off well enough, but when they resisted over time, I basically resorted to trying to talk them into it. I didn’t come out and say it, but I was acting like I believed the ends justify the means!
Yet evangelism is not trying to talk someone into doing something. The word evangelism comes from the Greek verb euangelizomai, which means to tell good news. There is an enormous difference between telling someone good news about what God has done and trying to talk them into doing something. If we talk them into getting baptized or saying they repent or stating that Jesus is Lord, but these are not responses to the message of what God has done in Christ and are not prompted by God working on their hearts through his Spirit, they are not conversion. They may look like it, but they are not. Merely trying to get people to do the correct religious actions is legalism and is powerless.
We are not seeking mere responses or religious commitment. We are seeking authentic new birth from God (John 3:1-8; note that the Greek word anothen means both “again” and “from above,” indicating God’s work in giving them new life). We noted previously that genuine conversion is vividly described in a number of profound ways, and we need to remember that these are what we are hoping will ensue (see post). But the only way such magnificent things will occur is for God’s message about Christ to be spoken and God’s Spirit to profoundly affect a person’s heart leading them to respond to it genuinely. It is the gospel that is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16).
We need to remember that God gives the growth. Paul states clearly that our role is to plant and to water, and that God is the one who makes things grow (1 Corinthians 3:6). He even goes so far as to say that the ones who plant and water are nothing (v. 7). Yes, God has given us a role, but in comparison to what God does, we are nothing. It is imperative that we stay in our lane and not infringe upon God’s work.
Because of these things, I’m convinced that we should hope for people to become disciples but place our focus on the faithful communication of the gospel. Our focus is not on conversion but on the only message that will bring about authentic conversion. God has entrusted his good news to us, and faithful stewardship demands that we speak it faithfully. We’ve noted (see post) that the message we have been entrusted with includes the story of Jesus, the meaning of the story, and the way God wants us to respond to it.
It is true that when we tell the gospel, we must also follow the example of Christ and his first followers in telling the way we are to respond to it (faith, repentance, baptism and then discipleship). It is also true that, if a person is not responding to the gospel, this response may need to be explained and clarified. I’m not trying to omit the response. But we should recognize that, if there is no response, it also may well be that the thing that needs to be explained and clarified is not the response, but what we are called to respond to, namely Jesus’ story, identity, and significance. You cannot have a response apart from the catalyst that causes it. This is in keeping with what we stated above about the gospel being what leads to people becoming disciples (Acts 14:21). By focusing on the message, we are focusing on the power of God which alone can bring about the salvation we hope for.
There is, of course, a ditch on the other side of the road too. If we focus on speaking the message instead on conversions, it is theoretically possible that we might become unconcerned about whether people are responding to it. We could conceivably grow apathetic about the message and simply go through the motions of telling it. This would be tragic as well as ineffective, from both a human point of view and a divine point of view.
If, however, those of us who speak the message have ourselves experienced its truth and power (2 Corinthians 4:6), it is not likely that we will be able to talk about it in a casual or unconcerned fashion. Instead, we will speak it earnestly and courageously. My own experience is that I am invigorated when I tell the good news to someone else. The fact that we do not control the results in no ways means we speak casually or dispassionately. Nor does it mean we don’t try very much or stay with someone very long. One of the surprising wonders of being a coworker with God is that those who believe most in God’s power and working, like Jesus and Paul, also work extremely hard themselves in their role. Our prayer is that in this way the word of the Lod may speed ahead and be honored (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
For more on how the ministry of Empowering Subjects is training people to tell this good news, see here.